[Oscar Madness Monday] Onward (2020)

Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer
Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin
102 mins. Rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Animated Feature Film

Onward has a notable distinction as being one of the first films heavily impacted by the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic, a piece of history that has changed cinema and the theatrical experience for years to come (and make no mistake, its effect on cinema is not the most important effect of the pandemic, but it is notable that this event has and will change the landscape). It had a release date, it met said date, and then it underperformed. I skipped the early screening due to the mounting concern that this virus might be hitting the US any day, and I only ended up going to the theater once more before the shutdown officially took place (I was concerned that it may have been my last chance to see a movie in the theater for some time, a notion I ended up being right about), and it wasn’t for Onward. Onward’s under-performance should forever be met with an asterisk and an explanation for why it seemed to fail, but time tends to smooth out the details and forget the context. Future generations will likely see this film as an underperforming Pixar film, a rarity for the company, and something that I was sad to have missed in theaters. Barring the Cars franchise, I like most of the Pixar slate, and I really wanted to see Onward after catching the trailer, and even though the film is overshadowed by the superior Soul (the other 2020 Pixar film), I still found the story to be heartfelt and the adventure enjoyable enough.

Onward is set in a fantasy world that has seemingly lost its magic. Technology has replaced mystical forces here, and the world has adapted. Unicorns are feral creatures that rummage through garbage cans, pixies are now part of motorcycle gangs, and the remnants of what came before are now a fantasy role-playing game. Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Cherry), a high-school age elf dealing with a massive confidence issue, lives in New Mushroomton with his mother and brother. Ian never met his father, Wilden, who passed away just before his birth, but on his sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Drefus, Downhill, TV’s Seinfeld) gives him a gift from his father, a magical staff capable of bringing his dad back to life for one day. When the spell is stopped midway, Ian and his brother, Barley (Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie, TV’s Parks & Recreation), are left with only the bottom half of their father. Now, on a race against the clock, these two brothers must embark upon a mythical quest to complete the spell and see their father before the day is up.

It’s interesting that Pixar has never taken on high-fantasy before. The closest they’ve gotten is Brave, a film with fantastical elements but never to the extent that Onward gets. I really enjoyed this world that director/co-writer Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) has given us. There is a genuinely interesting world that’s been created for this film with a level of meticulous detail that Pixar is known for. Scanlon showcases a love for all sorts of fantastical elements including iconic references to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons, and it never feels like a cheap shot or dunking on the accomplishments of these creators in the fantasy genre. If anything, Scanlon goes at these elements with a Mel Brooks-ian eye for having fun with the material while showing respect to it.

Within the confines of that unique and enjoyable world-building, I did like what Scanlon and his co-writers were going for with the familial story of these two brothers. This is a pretty heady little movie with an emotional punch that I expected and was still surprised by. What I really like about the quest is how it showcases for these two characters what is most important following the immense loss of a father figure, and it also doesn’t exactly go where I expected it, offering a gut punch in the film’s third act that strengthens the movie and ends it on a captivating and perhaps controversial note.

The journey in getting to that captivating finish, however, is a little simplistic and paint-by-numbers. There were many plot points in this film that I could see coming from miles away, a lot of setups that have easy payoffs, and a lot of character beats that I was expecting. That’s not to fault the film for trying, but outside of its finale, I was not surprised by anything in the journey of the heroes. There’s fun to be had, no doubt, and I don’t want to compare it to other Pixar films but I’ll say that so often recently, I have found myself shocked by many of the Pixar storylines (I’m looking at you, Coco), and their willingness to play with expectations, and though the film ends strong, I just feel like so many of the journey plot beats feel like unused Shrek story beats. In that way, the film is extremely accessible but, at times, a bit too easy and perhaps forgettable.

Onward feels like a gateway fantasy film that will likely convert non-fantasy children to this kind of storytelling. There’s a definite love for the genre on display here, and a genuine and compelling emotional work for its characters here, even if the film’s plotting feels a little too easy and expected throughout. Onward ends on a beautiful and risky note that will likely allow audiences to wipe away their tears and really think on the film’s message for some time after, though the bulk of the middle of it is forgettable. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt have some nice vocal talents for a film like this, and Onward comes with a recommendation from this film fan.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Dan Scanlon’s Monsters University, click here.

[#2021oscardeathrace] Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen
Screenplay: Shaka King
126 mins. Rated R for violence and pervasive language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Daniel Kaluuya) [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Lakeith Stanfield) [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Original Screenplay [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) “Fight For You” [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography [PENDING]


Judas and the Black Messiah, according to the Academy, doesn’t have a lead actor. Both Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Queen & Slim) and Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, The Photograph) received nominations for Best Supporting Actor. So who is the lead for Judas and the Black Messiah? Let’s break it down.

The follows Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), a criminal-turned-informant for the FBI, as he infiltrates the Black Panthers and becomes acquainted with Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the passionate and charismatic leader. Along the way, lines start blurring between Bill’s alliance to the FBI and his handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, The Irishman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), and the Hampton’s quest for equality and freedom from impression in the highly divisive 1960s.

The first element of Judas that struck me was the cinematography. This is an excellently-shot piece of cinema. Starting with Bill’s criminal activity at the film’s start, this camera is commanding the screen, almost a character of its own. Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) has a true handling of the action set pieces, and he knows when to let his powerhouse performers have the spotlight.

Kaluuya and Stanfield are electrifying as Hampton and O’Neal. Kaluuya’s is the more flashy of the two performances as Hampton, who is presented with a silver tongue for unity and a restrained fire to protecting his people, both within the Black Panthers, and for Black Americans across the nation. On the opposite is Stanfield, who is able to access a subtlety in his absolute terror as he stands by Hampton and the rest of the Black Panthers, forced to confront a choice within him that could forever alter the Civil Right Movement. Not knowing a lot of the real story of these two men, I was entranced by the quality of these two performances within the confines of the tension that director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) has constructed.

Let’s be honest here. Stanfield is the lead of the film and Kaluuya is the supporting player. We’re following Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal throughout the narrative, and the decision to push them both for Best Supporting Actor is likely to split the votes and garner neither of them with wins.

It’s shocking to note that this is only the second feature film for Shaka King as a director. King had served as director on a few television series and shorts, and I’m not denigrating those accomplishments, but a show, a short, and a feature film, while being genuinely the same, are very different undertakings. When I watch King’s understanding of character and plot while also being able to give an extra stylistic flair to Judas, I can see how all of that previous work helped and developed the work seen here, but the scale of this particular project is so much larger.

Judas and the Black Messiah was initially envisioned as “The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program)” and that is essentially what we get from a story perspective, but King comes at the material with a totally different and distinguished voice than Martin Scorsese had with The Departed. Judas is blessed with some incredible performances from not just Kaluuya and Stanfield but the entire principal cast, some real lions in the room. King’s film pairs well with another Best Picture nominee in The Trial of the Chicago 7, as Hampton plays a role in both, and it should make an intense and thoughtful film that will captivate your night.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2021oscardeathrace] The Nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards

Nominations are officially out for the 93rd annual Academy Awards. This year, it almost didn’t happen, and to be true, as I’ve said before, it’s been a weird year. I’m happy to have the Oscars occurring, even with the adjusted eligibility window making it very confusing as to what is allowed and what isn’t (and I’m sure, next year, it’ll be weirder when we talk snubs only to have forgotten that snubs for next year’s awards may actually have just been nominated this year and we forgot, much like the entire fourth season of Community), but I digress. The Oscars are here, and I’m so happy to have this feeling of normalcy in a very abnormal year.

The pandemic has had a shroud of much of the film community since last year. I recall that the last group party I attended was an Oscar party. There was a lot of us having fun, laughing and yelling at the TV, and we all joined together in praise when Parasite took the top prize.

It all feels like so long ago. I haven’t been in a theater in over a year. I can’t wait to go back to some kind of normal.

And normal is coming. With it, one of my favorite events is gearing up. In fact, the nominees were announced on my birthday, an altogether strange happenstance that likely won’t happen again. So here are the nominees. I’m sure you already know them, but I’ll be using this page to link the reviews that are incoming.

I’m ready to begin the 2021 Oscar death race. It’s a term I heard many years back, referring to the attempt to see every Oscar nominee before the big night. In recent years, I’ve been rather successful, at most missing a short here or there and perhaps a foreign language film that hasn’t reached wide release in the states. If you’d like to join in the Oscar death race this year, feel free to drop the hashtag #2021oscardeathrace so I can see what you’re watching and what you think on these nominees. It’s one of the best times of the year, and I look forward to sharing it with you.

Best Picture:

  • The Father
  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Mank
  • Minari
  • Nomadland
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Director:

  • Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
  • Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman
  • David Fincher, Mank
  • Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
  • Chloé Zhao, Nomadland

Best Actor:

  • Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
  • Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Anthony Hopkins, The Father
  • Gary Oldman, Mank
  • Steven Yeun, Minari

Best Actress:

  • Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday
  • Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
  • Frances McDormand, Nomadland
  • Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Sasha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami…
  • Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
  • Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

Best Supporting Actress:

  • Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
  • Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy
  • Olivia Colman, The Father
  • Amanda Seyfried, Mank
  • Youn Yuh-jung, Minari

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Minari
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Adapted Screenplay:

  • Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
  • The Father
  • Nomadland
  • One Night in Miami…
  • The White Tiger

Best Animated Feature:

  • Onward
  • Over the Moon
  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
  • Soul
  • Wolfwalkers

Best International Feature Film:

  • Another Round (Denmark)
  • Better Days (Hong Kong)
  • Collective (Romania)
  • The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia)
  • Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Best Documentary Feature:

  • Collective
  • Crip Camp
  • The Mole Agent
  • My Octopus Teacher
  • Time

Best Documentary Short Subject:

  • Colette
  • A Concerto Is a Conversation
  • Do Not Split
  • Hunger Ward
  • A Love Song For Latasha

Best Live Action Short Film:

  • Feeling Through
  • The Letter Room
  • The Present
  • Two Distant Strangers
  • White Eye

Best Animated Short Film:

  • Burrow
  • Genius Loci
  • If Anything Happens I Love You
  • Opera
  • Yes-People

Best Original Score:

  • Da 5 Bloods
  • Mank
  • Minari
  • News of the World
  • Soul

Best Original Song:

  • “Fight For You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
  • “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
  • “Io sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
  • “Speak Now” from One Night in Miami…

Best Sound:

Best Production Design:

  • The Father
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank
  • News of the World
  • Tenet

Best Cinematography:

  • Judas and the Black Messiah
  • Mank
  • News of the World
  • Nomadland
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

  • Emma.
  • Hillbilly Elegy
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank
  • Pinocchio

Best Costume Design:

  • Emma.
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Mank
  • Mulan
  • Pinocchio

Best Film Editing:

  • The Father
  • Nomadland
  • Promising Young Woman
  • Sound of Metal
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Visual Effects:

  • Love and Monsters
  • The Midnight Sky
  • Mulan
  • The One and Only Ivan
  • Tenet

So there you have it. These are the nominees for the the Oscars this year. Let the #2021oscardeathrace begin.

-Kyle A. Goethe

[Oscar Madness Monday] A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin

Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick

136 mins. Rated R.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Picture
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Director
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Film Editing

IMDb Top 250: #103 (as of 9/30/2020)

 

I remember where I was when I first watched A Clockwork Orange. I was a teenager, jammed into my bedroom back home with two buddies. We had rented the DVD (my local video store had a 5-5-5 deal, 5 Movies, 5 Days, 5 Bucks) along with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and we planned for a midnight double-feature. I was eating a 3-foot gummy snake that would give me a rough stomach ache the next morning. As we settled in for A Clockwork Orange (my memory is a little hazy on this, but I believe we chose Clockwork first), I didn’t know what to expect. Both films were ones I knew little to nothing about, and that’s usually the way I like it. No research, just experience. I recently looked back on A Clockwork Orange, it being a film I haven’t watched in years, and I elected to dive back in, see if my initial thoughts on the film have changed and what, if anything, I was able to pull from it this time around.

A Clockwork Orange is the story of Alex (Malcolm McDowell, Star Trek: Generations, Bombshell), a deviant youth who spends his nights robbing, assaulting, harassing, and of course, drinking some delicious milk at the milk bars. Alex and his droogs are fans of all sorts of malicious mayhem, and Alex being the leader, he gets to have the most fun with displaying the “artistry” of his violent psyche. When he is caught by police, though, Alex is sent to prison for one of his more horrific deeds. There, he is given the opportunity for a strange and unorthodox method of treatment, said to fix his criminal ways, called the Ludovico technique. This possible treatment method could get Alex out of prison years ahead of schedule, so he elects to try it. Now, Alex has become a pawn in the rehabilitation process, one that may fundamentally alter his perception forever.

I still remember watching this film for the first time. I was in awe. As I took the occasional bite of the 3-foot gummy snake, I was entrance with what I was seeing. Certainly, at this point of my youth, I’d never seen anything like A Clockwork Orange. Even now, years later, I’m still not sure I’ve seen anything similar. After that viewing, it had become clear that this was my favorite Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon) film, as it was the only one I didn’t initially hate (I had this rhythm with Kubrick where I hated his films on first watch only to rediscover them later and love them). Looking back on it now, I cannot say that it is still my favorite Kubrick film, but it feels the most unhinged and wild of his pictures, one that imprints itself onto the mind and stays there.

Malcolm McDowell’s take on Alex is so memorably menacing. It’s neither the way he speaks nor the horrible deeds he commits. Instead, it’s the way he derives joy from these acts, the way he views them. He is our narrator so we spend the film in his head, and we see that this violence, this debauchery, is merely his art, much in the way that music was Ludwig van Beethoven’s. He gets glee from the pain and mistreatment of others, singing Gene Kelly musical numbers while he inflicts physical harm on his victims. He’s the kind of young man who would enjoy kicking a puppy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s not a likable protagonist, but he is an interesting one, and I was fascinated in what would happen to him, how he would be changed by his arrest, incarceration, and “treatment.”

The film has a perfect three-act structure, one aided by intelligent and thoughtful filming techniques. Each of the three acts is easily separated from the others by unique choices in framing, lighting, and sound. Early on, there’s a menace to the filming techniques, but when we arrive in the prison with Alex, we get a colder, less-colorful world, and then there’s what comes after, something I’ll avoid getting into as you’ll want to see it for yourself.

There are themes abound in Clockwork, and so many of them resonated with me back then, in the basement, on a cheap projector, with two late-night friends, and they resonate all the more with me now. The way Kubrick showcases behavior conditioning and criminal reform is disturbing, and I think it’s great that Kubrick never feels like he is shoving his opinions down our throats here. In fact, he sort of feels like a curious child asking questions and letting us formulate our answers. I also really like the priest questioning Alex’s choice and free will in choosing to do good. He asks whether we’re really good if we’re conditioned to be afraid of being bad and how that loss of free will loses humanity as well. This question has been asked many times before, but not in this way, and rarely this effectively.

One wonders how A Clockwork Orange would have looked if made with Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones as the droogs (which is how it originally would have been when Jagger owned the rights to the novel), but what we have is astounding nonetheless. It’s neither an easy film to watch but it is a wholly effective experience unlike any other. That’s what many of us search for in film, the unique experience, and Clockwork gives that in abundance. If you’re looking for a messed-up movie for your messed-up mind, give A Clockwork Orange a try.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

  • For my review of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, click here.

[Oscar Madness Monday] Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon

117 mins. Rated R.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Effects, Visual Effects
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Art Direction – Set Decoration

IMDb Top 250: #53 (as of 4/29/2020)

 

Recently, in April, Alien fans everywhere celebrated Alien Day on 4/26 (as in LV-426, the moon where the Facehugger Eggs are first discovered in the original film), and it seems like a great time to revisit that very important film, one that changed many minds about the strength of horror films and sci-fi films.

The commercial transport ship Nostromo is returning to Earth with Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt, Contact, Lucky) and the other six members of the crew in stasis sleep. They are awoken by the ship’s computer it detects a transmission coming from a nearby moon. The crew sends a team down to discover the origins of the transmission, and what they uncover on the planet is more horrifying than any of them have ever known.

This comparison has been made many a time, but Alien shares a lot with Jaws. Now, everyone is going to say that the less-is-more comparison is obvious, but I’m looking at it from a different angle. The use of darkness and perspective in particular highlights all of the strengths of the film, particularly in their central monster. Director Ridley Scott (The Martian, All the Money in the World) understands what will work and what won’t, and he utilizes his tools well. Looking at some of the behind-the-scenes photos of the film, and particularly the xenomorph (played by Bolaji Badejo) showcase that this movie could’ve looked damn goofy, but the way it was shot and the way it was lit helps to focus the mood of the film, and it still, to this day, looks gorgeous as much as it looks gruesome.

Actor John Hurt on the set of “Alien”. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

The cast is fantastic, with specific emphasis thrown toward Sigourney Weaver (Avatar, Ghostbusters II) as Ripley, the warrant officer, and Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 1066: The Battle for Middle Earth) as Ash, the science officer. Everyone gets at least one great moment in the film.

The script is very strong and runs along very smoothly. This movie just cruises along, with no extra fat. Looking at Alien as a screenplay, it could very simply boil down into a slasher film as the xenomorph moves through the ship trying to pick off the crew one-by-one, but thankfully, the Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, The Return of the Living Dead) screenplay is stacked with flavor and atmosphere that Scott was able to play off of.

Ridley Scott’s strong directing and Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay combined to make a truly excellent atmospheric horror film. This is one that has aged like a fine wine, and it features some incredible set pieces, including the dinner scene with John Hurt’s (1984, The Elephant Man) intense performance is still one of the most shocking movie moments of all time. This is a movie that shows that not everything needs explaining and that, in fact, some films are stronger without all the answers. Stick with the Theatrical Cut as Scott’s Director’s Cut no longer makes full canonical sense within the confines of the xenomorph’s life cycle, but both versions of Alien are well-worth your time.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, click here.

For my review of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, click here.

[Oscar Madness Monday] Gangs of New York (2002)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson

Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan

167 mins. Rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Picture
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Actor in a Leading Role [Daniel Day-Lewis]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Director
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Original Screenplay
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Cinematography
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Art Direction – Set Decoration
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Costume Design
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Film Editing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Sound
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Music, Original Song

 

I’ve really wanted to revisit Gangs of New York for some time. I recall catching it back in college, and I also recall not liking it very much. Since college, I’ve grown to love and respect Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Irishman) and his filmography. He’s since become a director, in my eyes, that I would place on a Mt. Rushmore of all-time directors, but a few films by the director just didn’t click with me at the time, but I’ve wanted to watch those films again. Gangs of New York is one such picture. During this time of social distancing, I now have that time to rewatch Gangs of New York. Let’s see how this plays out.

The year is 1862, and Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) has return to New York City, to a place called the Five Points he fled from years ago. Vallon only has one goal in mind: to kill Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread), the man who killed his father in a brutal gang fight when Vallon was a child. Vallon finds himself infiltrating Bill’s inner workings in order to gain his confidence and get his vengeance, but matters are complicated when he comes into contact with an attractive pickpocket named Jenny (Cameron Diaz, There’s Something About Mary, Annie) and the lines are blurred among the Five Points.

It’s impressive that Leo is able to maintain a presence onscreen with Day-Lewis. This is still a film relatively early in the career of Leonardo DiCaprio, and his subdued yet strong performance is still able to hold his own. I really like DiCaprio here because he is able to portray Amsterdam Vallon’s internal flaws, which is something that becomes more complex as the narrative unfolds. Vallon’s emotional strain is stretched to the snapping point by what he is forced to endure at the hands of Bill “The Butcher” throughout the film.

Make no mistakes, though, no one is outshining Daniel Day-Lewis here as Bill Cutting. His fast-talking molasses-drawled speech is engaging, and his menacing visual performance is so catching and engaging. I love how DDL stays in character throughout shooting (he reportedly had dinner with Scorsese and DiCaprio in character after shooting wrapped for the day), and it seemingly helps his performance because he owns every film he appears in.

I know I’m beating a dead horse with this, but because of all the performing prowess displayed by not only DiCaprio and Day-Lewis but most of the supporting cast, it is quite noticeable how out-of-her-element Diaz is. Her broken accent as Jenny Everdeane is only overshadowed by her seeming disinterest in her character or the film she’s in. She just doesn’t engage on an entertainment level.

The screenplay for Gangs of New York is from Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan. There’s some prowess to this screenwriting crew, but I have a lot of problems with the screenplay. I feel like it was written very capably but it isn’t accessible. It’s a screenplay made for the audiences of 1862 instead of for today. The first time I watched it, I just couldn’t get into it, but I will say it was much better on the second viewing, but even then, I find some real problems with the screenplay. There’s a lost quality to the narrative at the beginning and near the end, with the second act of the film finding its footing.

Martin Scorsese is really trying something new with Gangs of New York. His directing style is a little more erratic, ambitious, and violent. Not all of it works within the confines of the film, but it showcases Scorsese’s interest in evolving. You can complain all you want about Martin Scorsese as a gangster filmmaker, but he is so much more than that, and Gangs of New York is a very different gangster film, or film in general, than anything else in his oeuvre. As stated, not all of the visual storytelling Scorsese presents here works, and I think, again, it works on a second viewing better than the first time around.

Gangs of New York is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s more positive than negative in all this, but it still struggles getting going and finishing strong. There’s a lot of good meat to the film, but it both works and doesn’t work, with the positive outweighing the negative. I enjoyed it on the second viewing way more than the first, mostly from the incredible work from DiCaprio and DDL. This will work for historical buffs or anyone with a bloodlust for bloody violence as well, to varying degrees.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, click here.

[#2020oscardeathrace] Walk Run Cha-Cha (2019)

Director: Laura Nix

Cast: Chipaul Cao, Millie Cao, Maksym Kapitanchuk

Screenplay: Laura Nix

20 mins. Not Rated.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Short Subject [PENDING]

 

Walk Run Cha-Cha is another Oscar-nominated short doc, this one a bit lighter fair than the others, focused on a couple, Paul and Millie Cao, who suffered in their younger years dealing with the fallout of the Vietnam War, who have now discovered, in their older years, an affinity for dancing.

This short documentary, written and directed by Laura Nix (The Politics of Fur, Inventing Tomorrow), chronicles both Paul and Millie’s background, the journey that brought them together, that brought them to America. It also looks at what brought them to dance, a mutual love they have both found. Initially, the doc, while entertaining and interesting, seems a little simplistic. Why this doc short for the Oscar?

It’s only upon seeing the climax that Nix builds the story to, a choreographed presentation made by this couple that accentuates their craft, their feelings for one another, and their feelings toward the dance. It’s a powerful, moving, and beautifully shot sequence that drives the whole film home in an elegant and memorable way.

Walk Run Cha-Cha does not reinvent the wheel, but it’s a moving and beautiful story that showcases a love that we should all hope to achieve in life. Aided by terrific pacing and an interesting set of subjects, this is a lovely story worth watching.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2020oscardeathrace] Life Overtakes Me (2019)

Director: John Haptas, Kristine Samuelson

Cast: Henry Ascher, Nadja Hatem, Mikael Billing

39 mins. Not Rated.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Short Subject [PENDING]

 

Okay, I’ll be real. I didn’t know anything about Resignation Syndrome. This was all new to me, and in that way, Life Overtakes Me was a real learning experience.

Life Overtakes Me, from directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson (Tokyo Waka, Barn Dance), chronicles refugees searching for sanctuary and the children dealing with the trauma caused by uncertainty. The children in these families have internally shut down into a sleep-like state, almost comatose, and the documentary shows how the families are forced to deal with the situation and pray for the best.

As I said above, I’ve never heard of Resignation Syndrome until seeing this, and it’s both an interesting view at this condition and also perhaps a little too simplistic of a look. It doesn’t delve deep enough to really be effective, but I was quite interested in the subject material. I just wanted more.

Life Overtakes Me was effective in breaking my heart, and I think it’s a very timely piece. Especially now, in America, looking at the way our country treats newcomers and people looking for safety and security in a new land, this short absolutely sickened me. I keep thinking about our borders and all the children dealing with trauma and it haunts me.

This short film, while not as in-depth as I would have liked, was still a strong viewing experience. Hell, it’s on Netflix, you have no excuse to ignore this 40-minute lesson in something I doubt many people even know of. Check this one out when you can. It’s worth you time, and it may just get you thinking.

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

[#2020oscardeathrace] For Sama (2019)

Director: Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts

Cast: Waad Al-Kateab, Hamza Al-Kateab, Sama Al-Kateab

96 mins. Rated TV-14.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature [PENDING]

 

There’s been a lot of cinema in recent years about the conflict in Syria, and many documentaries have presented unique filmmaker voices spread across the area. One of the more recent and unique voices comes from filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, who documented her life in Syria from 2012 to 2017, from falling in love to getting married to having a child, Sama. The film is made as a video journal intended for Sama to understand exactly what Waad and husband Hamza had to get through in order to survive.

This is another hard-hitting documentary look at the situation in Syria. It was incredibly hard to watch, much as the other documentaries have been, but this one was all the more effective because it follows life, day-to-day, and families, or the potential fracturing of family. I cannot begin to understand the world that Waad and her family existed in, the kind of difficult choices that had to be made in order to survive and live. People need to be able to live their lives, or life just isn’t worth living, and the love letter that Waad tells to her child is so tense and frustrating.

For Sama is an excellent time capsule from Syria, a tale of family, that is jarring and painful to watch, but it contains small moments of beauty as well. The film runs on a little long, even for an 86-minute film, but it works quite well at examining Syria from a different viewpoint. Check it out when you can, the film can be discovered for free care of PBS.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2020oscardeathrace] Honeyland (2019)

Director: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov

Cast: Hatidze Muratova

86 mins. Not Rated.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best International Feature Film [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature [PENDING]

 

Fun little bit of Oscars trivia for you. No film has ever gotten nominations for both Best International Feature Film and Best Documentary Feature…until Honeyland. There, you learned something reading this review.

Honeyland was filmed over the course of three years, chronicling the story of Hatidze Muratova, a women living in the wild mountains of Macedonia and operating an ancient beekeeping lifestyle, one that seems to be based on a symbiotic relationship between humans and bees. By not taking more than is necessary, she is able to successfully maintain an almost endless supply of honey, but when a family moves into the area nearby and attempts to get in on the honey money, Hatidze finds her world forever changed.

Honeyland is a powerful view of a world I’ve never seen. Hatidze’s world at the beginning is nicely juxtaposed with her world after the moving in of the new family, who seem to not understand this symbiotic relationship with the bees that Hatidze gains from. It features some of the most incredible real footage of her world in Macedonia.

Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov spent three years recording footage and molding it to fit this fairly-tight narrative, and that intimate closeness between the directors and their subjects creates a truly in-depth and emotion-laden story. It was heartbreaking to see Hatidze dealing with her ailing mother while simultaneously striving to survive her work and the competing work of the new family.

Honeyland is very worth watching. It’s one of the best documentaries of the year and also one of the best international films of the year. I highly suggest you take this spiritual journey of a woman and nature and check the film out as soon as possible.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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